The Marine Corps legend who tried to stop the Vietnam War
"Militarism in America is in full bloom and promises a future of vigorous self-pollination."
On David Monroe Shoup’s second trip to the sandy beaches of Betio Island on Nov. 20, 1968, he didn’t have to dodge enemy fire.
The decorated Marine and former commandant of the Marine Corps walked across the sand with a news reporter who’d traveled with him to the Tarawa Atoll cluster of islands in the Pacific Ocean on the 25 year anniversary of one of the most savage battles of World War II.
As they walked, the reporter asked the retired four-star general and Medal of Honor recipient if he thought mankind was capable of peace.
In his characteristic style, blending folksy wisdom from his farm-boy upbringing in Battle Ground, Indiana with the assertiveness that made him a successful combat leader, Shoup replied: “If you take history, it appears that, perhaps, we are throwing small shells against the tide.”
It was a perspective that would inevitably put him at odds with U.S. foreign policy decisions during the Cold War era, before reaching a fever pitch as the Vietnam War grew from what was originally framed as a limited military operation to a generation-defining quagmire.
Shoup, a career Marine, trusted confidant of President John F. Kennedy, and a recipient of the nation’s highest award for valor, would go on to become an outspoken critic of what he saw as rising militarism in America, fueled by the defense industry and career officers, and buoyed along by a citizenry that was enamored with war stories and tales of heroism.
In an essay published in The Atlantic Monthly titled The New American Militarism just a year after that interview, Shoup described his concerns over the self-licking ice cream cone that is the military-industrial complex:
“The battle successes and heroic exploits of America’s fine young fighting men have added to the military’s traditions which extol service, bravery, and sacrifice, and so it has somehow become unpatriotic to question our military strategy and tactics or the motives of military leaders.”
Shoup added that “militarism in America is in full bloom and promises a future of vigorous self-pollination — unless the blight of Vietnam reveals that militarism is more a poisonous weed than a glorious blossom.”
He paid dearly for those words. Brothers-in-arms saw him as a black sheep, as he eschewed accepted norms of conduct for officers and spoke out against what he believed was an unjust war, motivated not by politics or belief, but profits and ego.
“It didn’t stop him. He continued right up until he passed away,” Ed Nevgloski, the director of the Marine Corps History Division, said of Shoup, who died on Jan. 13, 1983 at age 78.
Shoup is hardly the first, and likely won’t be the last decorated military officer to draw the ire of politicians and high-ranking defense officials for failing to toe the party line.
Before him, there was Marine Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient who made a name for himself during the Great Depression by throwing his support behind veterans who demanded the government make good on their promise of a bonus following victory in World War I.
In more recent years, there was Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who became a political lightning rod in October 2019, when his Congressional testimony formed the basis for the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Just this year alone, scores of retired high-ranking military officers have stepped into the spotlight, sometimes to stump for political candidates. In other cases, senior officials like former Defense Secretary James Mattis, and former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, and Martin E. Dempsey, used their clout to censure the White House.
Occasionally, these public displays have been met with praise, though just as often they’re dismissed — tossed aside as politically motivated attacks. There’s rarely any middle ground, or a moment’s pause to consider that perhaps those whom we entrust to safeguard our nation and defend the constitution may have some thoughts on how best to do so. In those moments, as the public weighs whether or not to heed the warnings of its (current or former) military leaders, it might be prudent to remember leaders like Shoup. After all, his fears were eventually proven to be well-founded.
‘The brainiest, nerviest, best-soldiering Marine’
Shoup was far from your average peace-loving hippie of the 1960s.
Built like a bulldog, Shoup was every bit a Marine: Thick-necked, strong, rugged, broad-shouldered and athletic, yet it was his wit and bearing that made him formidable.
A mathematics student who attended DePauw University in Indiana on a scholarship, Shoup joined ROTC, before taking a commission in the Army in 1926 after graduation. Within a year, he transferred over to the Marine Corps — not uncommon at that time, given that the Corps had a limited number of officer billets — and served in fiscal affairs and logistics for much of his 37-year-career.
Friends described Shoup as “the brainiest, nerviest, best-soldiering Marine” they’d ever met. And though he’s often referred to as a man of few words, it’s what he said, and how he said it, that stands out. Shoup was a poet, something that’s evident when you read excerpts from his field notebook, which he scrawled in during his service in the Pacific Theater of World War II. “If you are qualified, fate has a way of getting you to the right place at the right time,” Shoup wrote. “Tho’ sometimes it appears to be a long, long wait.”
In another more self-reflective and somber passage, he returned to this idea of chance, writing that, “I realize that I am but a bit of chaff from the threshings of life blown into the pages of history.”
Shoup was a man very aware of his mortality: Life seemed a precious thing, too easily lost, and never to be discarded lightly. And it was a lesson he learned at war.
Shoup “took it to heart and was sincere when he said that we should only go to war when it is the last possible option,” Nevgloski told Task & Purpose.
Nevgloski characterized Shoup’s stance on the use of military force as a measure of last resort: “Military action should never be the first or the go-to option. It should always — at all costs — be the last, and even then, if we have a chance to walk it back we should.”
That was a result of his experience in World War II.
As part of the Allies’ island-hopping campaign in the Pacific, military planners set their sites on the Tarawa Atoll. On Nov. 20, Shoup, then a colonel, found himself in charge of eight battalion landing teams with the 2nd Marine Division, despite having limited experience as a commander and having seen little combat.
The three-day battle transformed the tropical shores into killing fields. Of the estimated 4,800 Japanese soldiers who defended the small island, nearly all of them — roughly 97 percent — fought to the death. Marines and sailors disembarking from landing craft were chewed up by enemy machine-gun fire as they made their way through razor-sharp coral reefs to a beachhead that was a maze of mines and barbed wire. Pre-targeted enemy artillery exploded without end, and Japanese soldiers fired at the exposed Marines from the relative safety of pillboxes, bunkers, and from behind barricades.
By the time the fighting was done, more than 1,000 Marines and sailors were dead, and more than 2,300 were wounded. Shoup was among the wounded, after being hit by shrapnel from an exploding artillery shell on the first day of fighting. The jagged metal remained lodged in his leg for the duration of the battle and eventually became infected.
“So, wounded, fighting an infection, disoriented, but yet he still manages to maintain complete situational awareness,” Nevgloski told Task & Purpose. “His presence of mind reporting back to higher, and then of course, the example he’s setting for his Marines — you can’t ask for more from your commanding officer.”
In times of peace, Shoup’s bearing earned him a reputation as a card shark, with some describing his eyes “like two burn holes in a blanket” which gave him an unbeatable poker face. But on the battlefield, his rigid self-control saved lives.
“He’s known for being very gruff on the radio,” Nevgloski said. “And what I mean by gruff, is very direct in nature, and he understands the situation, but he doesn’t quit.”
The incoming fire was so severe during the assault on Tarawa that the landing teams remained trapped on the beach for most of the first day before they were finally able to make headway inland. Shoup relayed the Marines’ progress on the second day in a clipped message to higher headquarters saying: “Casualties many; percentage dead not known; combat efficiency: We are winning.”
“Shoup has a very determined sense of duty,” said Nevgloski, adding that on Tarawa, the only way was onward. “You can’t turn back. The only way to win is to go forward, so pick up and move off the beach.”
The successful advance onto the island, while borne on the backs of rank-and-file Marines and sailors, and paid for with their sweat, blood, and lives, was initiated by Shoup, who doggedly urged his men to keep pushing, while he too shared in the danger.
Take Shoup’s citation for his Medal of Honor, which he was awarded in January 1945:
Upon arrival onshore, he assumed command of all landed troops and, working without rest under constant, withering enemy fire during the next two days, conducted smashing attacks against unbelievably strong and fanatically defended Japanese positions despite innumerable obstacles and heavy casualties
“He receives the Medal of Honor for his leadership at Tarawa, not so much for his tactical acumen as much as it is for his being very bold, very steadfast,” Nevgloski continued. “It was really his leadership, his inspiration, his willingness to put himself in the line of fire to command his forces. That’s what he’ll receive the Medal of Honor for.”
‘The president’s favorite general’
After World War II, Shoup’s star was on the rise, until it reached its zenith in 1959 when he was tapped to become commandant of the Marine Corps by then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose warnings against the military-industrial complex Shoup would later echo.
From the start, Shoup’s appointment as commandant was a source of animosity. A number of senior Marines who were in line for the job immediately retired after Shoup was selected for the post, “so he doesn’t necessarily have all the backing of some of the other senior officers in the Marine Corps who are now going to be working for him,” Nevgloski said.
It was under Eisenhower’s successor, President John F. Kennedy, that Shoup began to openly share his views on the use of military force.
Nowhere was this more apparent than during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, when Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev reached an agreement to place nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter American intervention after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff who made a name for himself during the Pacific campaign of World War II for his controversial strategy of bombing non-military targets, advocated for a full-on aerial bombardment of Cuba followed by a ground invasion.
“The Joint Chiefs of Staff don’t necessarily disagree with him, but they’re a little more cautious,” Nevgloski said. “Shoup on the other hand is all the way to the other extreme.”
In the ensuing discussion, Shoup harkened back to his service with the Marines on Tarawa, warning the president that the cost of life would be staggering, and so too would the fallout. Shoup’s argument, according to Nevgloski, boiled down to:
“This isn’t just about seizing an island. This is potentially starting World War III and who knows what’s going to happen along the lines of the atomic or nuclear weapons? So be really careful as we talk about looking at Cuba and saying ‘it’s a ragtag army.’ There are second or third-order effects that you have to consider.”
The president ultimately sided with Shoup, and the exchange marked the starting point in a relationship that saw Kennedy repeatedly turn to the Marine commandant for counsel, at first on matters related to the Marine Corps, then to the military in general, and eventually to foreign policy and diplomatic concerns.
But not everyone was thrilled. Among the military brass, particularly the other service chiefs, Shoup’s relationship with the commander-in-chief became a source of hostility, eventually earning him the unofficial title “the president’s favorite general,” according to Nevgloski.
Going to war against the military-industrial complex
There was one area where Shoup and Kennedy did not see eye-to-eye: The United States’ involvement in Vietnam.
“Shoup was quick to say that, you know, World War II was a war of necessity. We didn’t start it. We were pulled into it. We did what we had to do,” Nevgloski said. “Korea, I think he was a little bit less convinced that we should have been in Korea, but Vietnam, he’s looking at it as: This is something for the Vietnamese people to decide on their own.”
Beyond his moral reservations about using military force to influence another country’s political future, Shoup had grave doubts over the chances of success, should the U.S. military be deployed in force to wage a counter-insurgency campaign on the other side of the globe — which, ultimately, it did.
Though Shoup was asked by Kennedy to stay on for a second term as commandant, despite their differences over Vietnam, he declined, opting instead to allow another Marine to take over the top post and advance their career. And in December 1963, a month after Kennedy’s assassination, Shoup retired from the Marine Corps.
Over the next several years, under President Lyndon B. Johnson, America’s military presence in Vietnam grew in size and scale — as did the human cost. By the time the United States’ involvement in Vietnam ended in 1973, millions of service members had deployed there, either as volunteers or draftees, more than 58,000 were killed, and a further 153,000 were wounded. An estimated 2 million Vietnamese civilians were killed during the war.
Between his retirement and the war’s end, Shoup took on a new mantle: that of an anti-war activist.
“He goes on a speaking tour around the country throughout the mid-to-late ’60s, and as early as ’66,” Nevgloski said. “He does several tours around the United States as far out as 1969 where he continues to tell people in the United States: ‘I told you we shouldn’t have gotten involved. We got involved and what has happened is exactly what I thought would happen.’”
One of Shoup’s earliest public addresses against U.S. involvement in Vietnam took place in May 1966 at Pierce College in Los Angeles, California, during which he remarked “I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own,” according to a transcript of his speech included in the Congressional Record.
And in the 1969 essay for The Atlantic Monthly, Shoup made some of his most-pointed arguments against the rise of militarism in the United States, which he blamed in large part, for America’s involvement in Vietnam:
Somewhat like a religion, the basic appeals of anti-Communism, national defense and patriotism provide the foundation for a powerful creed upon which the defense establishment can build, grow, and justify its cost. More so than many large bureaucratic organizations, the defense establishment now devotes a large share of its efforts to self-perpetuation, to justifying its organizations, to preaching its doctrines, to self-maintenance and management.
Warfare becomes an extension of war games and field tests. War justifies the existence of the establishment, provides experience for the military novice and challenges for the senior officer. Wars and emergencies put the military and their leaders on the front pages and give status and prestige to the professionals. Wars add to the military traditions, the self-nourishment of heroic deeds, and provide a new crop of military leaders who become the rededicated disciples of the code of service and military action.
Shoup’s poetic rhetoric, coupled with his position as a decorated Marine officer who helped win World War II, did the job: It made waves. But it might not have been the way he intended or hoped.
Shoup’s successor as commandant, Gen. Wallace Greene, distanced himself from his one-time friend, as did Lt. Gen. Victor ‘Brute’ Krulak, a Marine colleauge. Around the same time, unfounded rumors that Shoup suffered from mental illness began to surface, Nevgloski said.
“It was a clear sign that Shoup was actually going a step beyond what some Marine officers thought was okay for him to do in speaking out against U.S. military policies overseas,” Nevgloski explained.
During a Congressional hearing in March 1968, Shoup responded to criticism he’d received for voicing his opinions on the war.
“I do consider it a privilege to be able to appear here and participate in this great democratic process in our country,” Shoup said. “Particularly when you think that, now, an Indiana farm boy has been asked to come here to talk about matters of great national interest and to give his views without any fear of reprisal whatsoever, except being called a dissenter, a traitor, and to be accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”
During that address before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he went on to argue that the Domino Theory used to justify America’s involvement in Vietnam would lead to wars without end, and eventually, the United States would be unable to meet the demands of so many military campaigns. (The Domino Theory refers to a failed strategy to limit the global spread of communism.)
Even as Shoup faced criticism for speaking out, there were some within the Pentagon who knew full-well that he was right. That fact was laid bare when the New York Times and The Washington Post began publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971 — leaked documents from a research project commissioned by the military to determine whether its strategies in Vietnam had been successful.
In retrospect, Shoup has largely been vindicated, and his warnings proved true, even if they were too long ignored. In the years since Shoup railed against rising militarism, the U.S. has found itself locked in its longest period of sustained conflict. A war that began in Afghanistan quickly spread, first to Iraq, and in the years that followed, saw American troops conducting combat operations across the globe, from Pakistan to Libya, Syria, Somalia, and many more countries.
And for almost two decades defense officials from three different presidential administrations have insisted the country’s current conflicts are at a turning point, even as the children of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans now deploy to those same theaters.
That may have been what Shoup feared when he spoke with that reporter on the beaches of Tarawa all those years ago, likening an end to war as “throwing small shells against the tide.”
Yet he remained an optimist, believing that day could come, but it required receptive leaders:
“I think that in the end, without a doubt, eventually we will be able to live where the people can get the very meager things that they want: justice and peace,” he said during that interview in November 1968. “And that their leaders, their government, will finally rise to an intellectual position in which they can find a way to stop the killing and maiming of men, women, and children in war.”
Ultimately, Shoup wasn’t just a legendary Marine, and in his later years, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, but a symbol of the fundamental contradictions in how we treat veterans in American society: We pay respects to those who have endured the horrors of war, we laud them as heroes, praise their stoicism and strength, and lift them onto a pedestal, where we expect them to quietly remain.
But when they open their mouths to share the hard-earned lessons of their service, to push back and argue that the costs they and their peers have been asked to bear is too great, they’re met with resistance, if not outright hostility — even when they’re right.